NBA case study: virtual desktop system a bloody good upgrade

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday March 1, 2016

Sometimes, the system works. The National Blood Authority’s chief information officer Peter O’Halloran says the nationwide agency’s recent IT upgrade was worth every penny, paid for itself in just five months, and he didn’t even need to run a tender process.

The NBA recently replaced its standard set-up with a Nutanix cloud based platform, designed and installed by Canberra firm Qirx, which allows secure teleworking through virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) and has saved a lot of staff time.

Peter O'Halloran
Peter O’Halloran

“Previously where everyone had a desktop PC and then we had a couple of racks of equipment running the back end to the servers, we’ve condensed that down into a set of equipment in the comms room that’s about half a metre in height, at most, in one rack … so it’s neat and tidy, a lot less power consumption, a lot less equipment,” O’Halloran told The Mandarin.

“And then on the desktops it’s basically equivalent to the good old days, in some ways, when dumb terminals went back to mainframes.”

O’Halloran says there weren’t any major technical challenges, just a few “minor issues” that were taken care of through a small pilot.

“The key challenge really was actually getting staff to understand that going to VDI and thin desktops actually would give them an improved experience,” he explained.

“A number of our staff had come from other departments where they’d gone down that path and it had been all about ‘How do we save money? How do we cut resources out?’

“And our view was, we’re actually doing this to deliver an improved user experience, so we got staff on board by showing what they could actually do, to the point of actually doing demonstrations.”

“That’s a great arrangement and that’s how it should work in the public service”

VDI allows people to access all of their work securely from outside the office on any computer.

“We actually then saw significant staff take-up to the point where two thirds of our staff routinely — as in once a fortnight or more — log on to our IT systems from outside the office to do their jobs, whether it’s five minutes to check a meeting time, or working from home for a day, or out on the road in a hospital for a week.”

In the end, he didn’t even have to go through a tender process, instead using the co-operative procurement framework to “piggyback” on a provider panel set up by Treasury and made available to other agencies.

“We looked at two or three different providers of what they call hyper-converged technology — in essence they take your storage, your servers and the network and squash it all into a single box,” the CIO said.

“We looked at three of them in detail and from our evaluation, only one really delivered the performance we wanted at a reasonable price, so we then went through and used the Treasury’s [request for tenders] that they had done previously and [put in place] piggyback arrangements, to actually do the actual procurement.”

The Department of Finance website explains various kinds of co-operative procurement. O’Halloran thinks any agency that goes to market without first seeing if they can save time that way is “simply crazy”.

“To my mind, that’s a great arrangement and that’s how it should work in the public service,” he said.

How the savings were made

A return on investment in only five months through productivity improvements like reduced login times is pretty much unheard of for such a project, O’Halloran says. “Normally it’s two or three years if you’re lucky!”

The NBA is a federal agency but gets funding from all nine Australian governments to manage the nationwide supply and storage of blood and blood products, which unfortunately don’t last long in the fridge. Its staff, who often go out to hospitals and other stakeholders in this complex and important part of the health system, can “achieve a hell of a lot more in a lot less time” since the upgrade, their CIO says.

O’Halloran expects the system to deliver about $10 million a year in savings by preventing “blood wastage” that would have otherwise occurred.

The agency leads ongoing efforts to reduce unnecessary wastage, and he says they’ve seen the number of discarded red cells drop by about half in the last 18 months. Each bag of red cells is about $350 worth, and then there’s the costs associated with managing it, not to mention the fact that some donor made the effort to lie down and have it extracted.

The NBA also sends lab scientists out to major hospitals to see if they can help optimise their blood inventory management practices from time to time, to make the most use out of the limited supply that is available. That used to involve getting a bunch of up-to-date information out of various databases beforehand.

“Previously when we went on those visits, because we couldn’t access all those resources outside the office, the scientists or nurses who were going out would sit there in the office for a week or two prior to going and do every possible combination of data and every possible graph, to answer any questions that someone in the hospital could ask them, print it all off, and take it along with them and then sit there for half a day and go through it with them,” said O’Halloran.

“With the new system, they can log on in real-time, have access to all those data sets and do it on the fly, so where it previously took them up to a week to prepare for a visit, now it takes half a day.”

“And it means those same staff, rather than sit in the office, can get out to more hospitals and talk to more people.”

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